FINCA TATIN, Guatemala- I was cleaning up some garbage and straitening out some things in the common room of the Finca Tatin one morning when I picked up a half crumpled flyer for the Bigfoot Hostel in Nicaragua. I looked at it. It had a picture of young, white tourists riding sleds down the side of a volcano. My wife, Chaya, caught me looking at it.
“I stayed there once,” Chaya spoke, “it is a real teenage boy hostel. Everyone just sat around watching TV the whole time. I just sat in the common room writing in a journal or something. I don’t think anyone talked to me the whole time I was there. I stayed in a dorm by myself. It really sucked.” She then added as sort of an afterthought, “I guess it could be cool if you’re a teenage boy.”
I knew the kind of place she was talking about — the kind with a gang of cool dude white dudes and hot white girls in skimpy clothes talking about getting drunk like high school kids.
A very difficult place to make friends.
The hospitality of the backpacker travel industry is different from other forms of service business. It is not the job of the receptionist of a backpacker hotel to say “Yes sir, yes sir.” It would be a misplaced action for a hostel worker to bow down to the guests and act overtly polite and formal. It would be a very weird sight to find a backpacker hotel filled with workers in button down shirts, name tags, and slacks. This is a different sort of industry:
It is not the job of the hostel receptionist to serve travelers, it is the job of the hostel receptionist to befriend travelers.
[adsense]This is a funny sort of profession to find myself working in. I could go through my days here working at the Finca Tatin without ever talking to anyone, without acknowledging the guests beyond what is minimally necessary, I could treat the clients of this hotel as merely ephemeral apparitions: people who are here one minute and gone the next.
And sometimes I do, depending on the crowd.
But I try not to, I try to at least treat guests as one of a kind human beings, even if they demonstrate evidence to the contrary.
Nobody talks with little Jewish girls sitting by themselves in teenage boy hostels in Nicaragua. People who sit in hotel common rooms by themselves do so because they want to talk with other people, they want to meet people as they travel. I know this because this is what I want when I sit around in hostel common rooms. I know that when I sit down with a book in a hostel common room that I really have no interest in reading, it is just a prop to lay my eyes on — perhaps to keep myself from feeling too lame in my search for conversation, companionship.
I also know that it is possible for a young person to travel between the teenage boy hostels of the planet as a ghost, completely unnoticed, just another blemish on an ever rotating background. I believe that it is part of the job of the hostel worker to notice the guests — a job that is almost as essential as checking them in or collecting their money. This is something that is rarely done — but when it is, it is money in the hostel’s bank.
Someone who takes away a good enough impression of a hotel to recommend it once will probably recommend it dozens of times to scores of travelers.
There is actually a job called “fun manager” in many hostels around the world. This job is usually held by a poor, young traveler with a big taste for booze, nightlife, and other people’s genitals. The job description goes as follows:
You get a free bed in a hostel in exchange for getting the guests together and showing them a good time. You take them to the coolest bars, introduce them to people, get the ball rolling. Apparently, as a fringe benefit you get the privilege of copulating with drunk, half unconscious people on a nearly nightly basis (a privilege that I have even observed take by some pretty ugly mugs). Many of the top hostels in popular European cities have fun managers. I have known a few, they humped a lot, drank more — lived the life.
I even unwittingly found myself a fun manager on a couple of occasions. I did not copulate nearly as much as my brethren — I never got the hang of serial successes in this line of work — but I did show people the raw underside of the places they were staying in. I took them out into the fields with big jugs of wine, not to bars, we would go on self made adventures, not pub crawls. The definition of fun, I suppose, was left up to my own interpretation: I managed what I thought was fun. Sometimes other people found it fun too, sometimes they ran away to grovel for a copulation partner somewhere.
Any way you kick the cat, the life of the fun manager is not so bad.
And they are good for business.
My friend Andy Hobotraveler told me about the time he helped open up a hostel in Iquitos. He told me that he hired two local girls who could speak English to be a part of his staff. The job of these girls was nothing more than to talk with the guests, to make friends, to make sure that everyone felt included.
In a short time, the hostel became one of the busiest in the city.
A hostel, a hotel, any business in the tourist/ backpacker/ travel industry only has one chance with a client to make an impression that will always last. A business that caters to travelers is not like a business that is down the street in someone’s hometown, a traveler’s business has no chance to prove themselves better tomorrow than were today. No, the traveler industry only has one chance only: your client either recommends you, forgets you, or advises other people to steer clear away from you.
My wife, in passing, advised me to pass up the Bigfoot Hostel in Nicaragua. If we go back there, we will look for another place to stay, even though that particular hostel could be vastly different now than it was when my wife was there.
I can remember staying at the Bayswater Hostel in London a long time ago. It was an awesome place, well priced, there was graffiti all over the walls and punk rockers drinking in the basement. It was fun. I went back three years later to find the place a gentrified, overpriced, standard, white walled, standard tourist with backpack hostel.
Things change, but a traveler’s impression will stay the same until they have an experience which alters it. If a traveler thinks a hostel is crap then they will continue telling people it is crap no matter how it changes in their absence. If a traveler thinks a place is good, they will recommend it endlessly, no matter if it has gone to shit or not.
The listings in guidebooks are ultimately recommendations: a “traveler” goes to a place and shares their impressions in print with other tourists.
Word of mouth is the essential element in making a business in the backpacking industry. Many, if not most, of the clients who come into the Finca Tatin — where I am currently working in Guatemala — confirm that they had the place recommended to them by other travelers, that they made the trip into the jungle based on the words of others who had previously traveled this way.
There is no better advertisement than word of mouth, and the impressions that travelers leave a place with are the impressions that are passed on to other travelers — to prospective clients.
I have worked in two hostels/ hotels somewhat formally, in others less formally. I know that my job is not to grovel before guests — I refuse to do this — but to treat them as equals, as friends. I speak to them in an informal voice, I do not get dressed up for their benefit, I often don’t even wear a shirt and walk around in only a pair of running shorts.
This is OK, my job is to be people’s friend, not their servant — I am here to help guests access this beautiful part of the world, not to allow them to feel superior to me. I am here to make sure the guests know what they are doing, find what they are looking for, and leave happy.
The impression that people take away from the hotels that I work at will also be an impression of me. If I can make them laugh, they will pass the word along; if I piss them off, their recommendation of my workplace will be stunted. I work an informal job, but this does not mean that my behavior does not need to be calculated. So I look for the guests that do not fit in, I look for the lonely Jewish girl reading a book in the common room, and I start a conversation. I try to make people feel included, like they are a part of what is going on, I ask people how they are doing, I say good morning, good night — if we uncover a common plane for friendship, then I keep talking to them.
This seems simple. This is how I would want to be treated in a hotel, and the hotels that have treated me like this I have always remembered — and continue to recommend.
Though if a guest approaches me rudely, I respond as instinct dictates: again, I am not a servant, I respect people enough to let them know when they have misinterpreted the social sphere they are operating in.
Backpacker hospitality perhaps means stripping down to your raw form, acting as yourself — I am a traveler not a customer service rep, I know this, everyone who comes into the hotel that I am working at knows this, so I act as a traveler, a friend. It is my impression that the backpacker service industry requires interacting with guests as you would potential friends rather than merely customers.